Senator Joins Ethics Probe That Could Get EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Disbarred

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been caught repeatedly misleading Congress about his use of different email accounts during his six years as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

He said he used just one email, when he actually had two. He sent official correspondence from a personal address, and appeared to deliberately delay public-records requests to cover his tracks before facing a Senate confirmation hearing.

Now, a senator involved in that confirmation process is backing an effort that could get Pruitt disbarred in his home state, Oklahoma, for violating ethics rules.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) plans to submit a lengthy statement and 60 pages of evidence to the Oklahoma Bar Association on Tuesday for its investigation into Pruitt, whom he accuses of lying to him during and after the hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The bar association began probing Pruitt in March in response to an ethics complaint filed by an environmental group and a University of Oklahoma law professor.

Whitehouse, in a letter provided to HuffPost before he submitted it to the bar association, says Pruitt’s “misleading answers, evasiveness, and stonewalling” prevented lawmakers from fully vetting the candidate before advancing his nomination for a Senate confirmation vote.

“I have had a front-row seat for Mr. Pruitt’s misleading testimony and his ongoing failure to respond completely and truthfully to Committee requests for him to set the record straight,” Whitehouse wrote in the letter, addressed to bar association general counsel Gina Hendryx. “This conduct is unbecoming of an attorney who is also a public official and who, under law, is required to testify truthfully to Congress.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 27. (Photo: Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

Pruitt’s deep ties to fossil fuel industries whose pollution he’s now charged with policing became a lightning rod during his confirmation process. Correspondence published by The New York Times in 2014 as part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series showed Pruitt allowing lawyers from Devon Energy, an oil and gas company, to write a complaint to the EPA under his official letterhead. Since taking office, Pruitt has spent an unusual amount of time courting fossil fuel executives amid aggressive rollbacks of regulations and programs to address climate change.  

His failure to provide accurate testimony on his email use fuels concerns that he misled lawmakers to obscure his push to boost oil and gas profits ahead of public health. If he is found guilty of violating rules, the bar association could choose to sanction Pruitt, suspend his license or, in the most severe scenario, disbar him for at least five years.

It’s unclear how disbarment would affect his job as EPA administrator.  

“He misstated the facts over and over again,” Whitehouse told HuffPost in a phone interview on Monday. “This was a case of repeat prevarications, not just an inadvertent slip.”

During his first appearance before Congress in January, Pruitt claimed he never used his personal email address for official business. He told Whitehouse that there were “no other email addresses.” After the hearing, he confirmed the statement, telling Whitehouse: “I have used two email addresses since becoming attorney general of Oklahoma. I use a personal email address for personal email, and an official email address for official business. The domain of my personal email address is me.com and the domain for my official email address is oag.ok.gov.”

On Feb. 21, four days after he the Senate narrowly confirmed his nomination, the Oklahoma attorney general’s office released 7,564 pages of Pruitt’s emails under court order following a lawsuit from the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy. The correspondence showed Pruitt using his personal email for official purposes, contradicting his testimony.

In June, the second cache of emails handed over to the Wisconsin-based watchdog group revealed that Pruitt used two addresses for the Oklahoma attorney general’s office: scott.pruitt@oag.ok.gov, and esp@oag.ok.gov. The latter, as The Washington Post noted, used the initials for Pruitt’s full name, Edward Scott Pruitt.

Whitehouse said Pruitt stalled efforts to make the emails public under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act. In the five months after Mike Hunter, Pruitt’s successor, took over, his office cleared a backlog of open-records requests that dated back to 2014.  

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“Somebody needs to hold Scott Pruitt to account or at least investigate some of the questions that remain on his record during his time as Oklahoma attorney general,” Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, told HuffPost by phone. “There were many questions that were asked during his confirmation hearing that should have been answered but they weren’t.”

John Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association, declined to comment on the status of the investigation, but said it could be many months before it concludes.

“It can be a fairly elaborate and lengthy process,” Williams told HuffPost. In anticipation of Whitehouse’s submission, he said: “I assume that would cause the investigation to go on longer.”

If the bar association concludes that Pruitt violated ethics rules, the case is turned over to a committee that determines whether charges should be filed, and a special tribunal responsible for holding hearings. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court reviews the investigation.

The ethics complaint could provide legal ammunition for other challenges to Pruitt’s regulatory agenda. Whitehouse said lawsuits opposing EPA rollbacks of rules on oil and gas companies could go after Pruitt for alleged conflicts of interest.

“It’s regrettable that these steps have to be taken about somebody who has been shoved into a Cabinet-level position in the government of the United States of America,” Whitehouse said. “But that’s the world under Trump.”

 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's complaint to Oklahoma Bar Association by Alexander Kaufman on Scribd

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He has threatened to undermine protections for air and water.

President Donald Trump is no environmental champion, but even he has said it's “vitally important" to have “crystal clean” air and water. Pruitt, however, has proven himself to be antagonistic to even this idea.

Since taking office as Oklahoma’s attorney general in 2011, Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency on multiple occasions in an effort to overturn rules limiting air pollution from power plants -- including the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which curbs power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which place limits on the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollution.

As Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained in January, those are both life-saving regulations: “Taken together, they are projected to prevent 18,000 to 46,000 premature deaths across the country and save $150 billion to $380 billion in health care costs annually. In Pruitt’s home state, the two regulations would avert as many as 720 premature deaths and save as much as $5.9 billion per year.”

Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the Waters of the United States rule -- which, in a piece co-written with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), he called the “greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen.” The rule, which is currently tied up in the courts, extends EPA protection to tens of millions of acres of wetlands and millions of miles of streams, including those that 1 in 3 Americans rely on for drinking water.

Pruitt also sued the EPA over its 2015 regulation strengthening the national health standards for ground-level ozone or smog pollution.

Several of these lawsuits are still ongoing, and environmental advocates have called on Pruitt to recuse himself from decisions related to the regulations he’s challenged in court. Legal experts told Bloomberg, however, that they knew of no rules in place that would compel such an action on Pruitt’s part.

“Every American should be appalled that President-elect Trump just picked someone who has made a career of being a vocal defender for polluters to head our Environmental Protection Agency,” Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, said in a December 2016 statement. “He has fought Environmental Protection Agency pollution limits on toxic substances like soot and mercury that put us all at risk for increased cancer, childhood asthma and other health problems. He falsely claims that fracking doesn’t contaminate drinking water supplies.”

He doesn’t think the EPA is the “nation’s foremost environmental regulator.”

During a House Science Committee hearing last year, Pruitt stressed that the EPA might need to intervene on some “air and water quality issues that cross state lines,” but that the agency “was never intended to be our nation’s foremost environmental regulator.”

“The states,” he said, “were to have regulatory primacy.”

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt created a “federalism unit” with the specific aim of opposing federal protections and safeguards, including the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations.

Under Pruitt, the EPA will likely witness “an increasing effort to delegate environmental regulations away from the federal government and towards the states,” Ronald Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, told The New York Times. 

Though states may be best equipped to regulate certain industries, some experts have stressed that environmental protection is one area that needs more federal oversight. 

“Pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries,” Patrick A. Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School, told the Times. “States have limited ability to regulate pollution from outside the state, and almost every state is downstream or downwind from other pollution.”

He doesn’t believe in climate change.

The EPA’s stance on global warming has been unambiguous.

Climate change is happening,” the agency said on its website, adding that the EPA is “taking a number of common-sense steps to address the challenge” of warming, such as developing emissions reduction initiatives and contributing to “world-class climate research.”

Pruitt, like most of Trump’s Cabinet picks, is a climate change denier. Ignoring the overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, Pruitt wrote last year that the debate on climate change is “far from settled.” 

Gina McCarthy, the previous EPA chief, warned in November that denying the facts about climate change would undermine the United States' success both domestically and internationally. Other countries “are wondering if the U.S. will turn its back on science and be left behind,” she said. 

“The train to a global clean-energy future has already left the station,” McCarthy added. “We can choose to get on board — to lead — or we can choose to be left behind, to stand stubbornly still. If we stubbornly deny the science and change around us, we will fall victim to our own paralysis.”

He’s a close ally of the fossil fuel industry ...

… and their relationship has observers deeply concerned.

Since 2002, Pruitt has received more than $300,000 in contributions from the fossil fuel industry, including from political action committees connected to Exxon Mobil, Spectra Energy and Koch Industries. The New York Times reported in 2014 that he and other Republican attorneys general had formed an “unprecedented, secretive alliance” with major oil and gas companies to undermine environmental regulations. One of the firms, Oklahoma’s Devon Energy, drafted a letter for Pruitt to send to the EPA in 2011. Pruitt printed the document on state letterhead and sent it off, almost verbatim, to Washington.

As attorney general, Pruitt also filed several lawsuits with industry players, including Oklahoma Gas and Electric and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, a nonprofit group backed by major oil and gas executives. In May 2016, Pruitt joined then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in writing an opinion piece defending Exxon Mobil and other energy groups, after the oil giant came under scrutiny for allegedly failing to disclose its internal research on climate change.

The Times asked Pruitt in 2014 whether he’d been wrong to send letters to the federal government written by industry lobbyists, or to side with them in litigation. Pruitt was unapologetic.

“The A.G.’s office seeks input from the energy industry to determine real-life harm stemming from proposed federal regulations or actions,” his office said in a statement. “It is the content of the request not the source of the request that is relevant.”

Opponents, however, say Pruitt is a Big Oil ally — someone who, as EPA administrator, could prioritize industry interests over the health of the environment and the American people.

“This is a frightening moment,” Harvard University professor Naomi Oreskes said at a rally in December, referring to Trump's Cabinet picks. “We have seen in the last few weeks how the reins of the federal government are being handed over to the fossil fuel industry.”

“From denying settled climate science to leading the opposition of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Pruitt has sent a loud and clear message to Big Oil and its well-funded mouthpieces that he’s their guy,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is one of the senators calling for Pruitt to disclose more details on his connection to some oil-funded groups, according to Mother Jones. “To put a climate denier at the helm of an agency working to keep our environment safe is as dangerous as it gets.” 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, echoed similar concerns: “The American people must demand leaders who are willing to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. I will vigorously oppose this nomination.”

It’s not just Pruitt’s fossil fuel connections that have raised eyebrows. A recent Environmental Working Group investigation found that Pruitt gave a regulatory pass to polluters from the poultry industry after receiving $40,000 in campaign donations from executives and lawyers representing poultry companies. 

“Very clearly, this is someone coming in [to lead the EPA] with an ideology to deregulate at whatever government level he finds himself,” Cook, the EWG head, told The Huffington Post. “There’s no saying that ‘we just have a different philosophy’ about who should enforce environmental law. The philosophy, if it exists, is that environmental policy shouldn’t be enforced at a state or federal level. It is industry unrestrained.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.